High-wire act

Foundations of the cable car pylons can still be located today.
Foundations of the cable car pylons can still be located today.
The term "cable car" tends to conjure images of snow-clad mountains in Europe. But in fact the world's first aerial cable car system designed to carry passengers rather than freight was built in Hong Kong – and it belonged to Swire.

The Taikoo Sugar Refinery opened for business at Quarry Bay on Hong Kong Island in 1884 – the establishment of the factory on a remote, green-field site leading to the development of an entire 'company town' to service its 24-hour-a-day production schedule. By 1892, Taikoo was employing almost 2,000 people and Taikoo Village would be further enlarged by the construction of Taikoo Dockyard in the early 1900s.

At their peak, the sugar and dockyard businesses supported a workforce of about 6,000 and with their dependants a community of maybe five times that number, serviced by shops, recreational and welfare facilities and a school. Swire also provided a variety of benefits and amenities to attract skilled managerial staff from overseas. One initiative was the creation of a summer hill station for senior staff and their families. Located 1,000 feet above sea level on Mount Parker, the "Sanitarium" provided summer accommodation at a time when outbreaks of "Hong Kong fever" (malaria) and bubonic plague were common.
The "aerial tramway", completed in 1892, enabled staff to commute conveniently between this seasonal home and the refinery below. At roughly a mile and a half in length, it consisted of two fixed steel cables supported on pylons, carrying two six-person cars. Propulsion was provided by a steam-powered winch located at the lower terminal and the tramway worked on a counterweight system, with the winch pulling one car down and using its weight to pull the other car up.

By the 1930s, with plague eradicated in Hong Kong and innovations such as electric ceiling fans making summertime at sea level more bearable, the Sanitarium had become an expensive luxury. After an unsuccessful attempt to sell, the company tore down the buildings and the cable car system in 1932. Traces of its whereabouts can still be found however, and Swire's Archive Service has recently joined forces with a local heritage group to produce a hikers' guide to the area, which is now part of Tai Tam Country Park. The group has located the foundations of 24 of the pylons used to support the cable system – and believes one is yet to be found. They have also mapped an old trail that follows the cable car route, and have identified the foundations of the Sanitarium, as well as an old rifle range used by staff for target practice. These remnants can all be located with the aid of a new leaflet produced by the Archive Service with funding from the Swire Trust. Please click here to obtain an electronic copy of the leaflet. To obtain a printed copy, you can contact the Swire HK Archive Service archiveservice@jsshk.com with your mailing information.

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Two European staff cross the refinery’s reservoir in 1899. The unusual headgear worn by the man on the left is a variation on the standard-issue solar topee worn by Victorians in the tropics as a protection against the sun; this one was designed to facilitate a flow of air to the scalp.
Two European staff cross the refinery's reservoir in 1899. The unusual headgear worn by the man on the left is a variation on the standard-issue solar topee worn by Victorians in the tropics as a protection against the sun; this one was designed to facilitate a flow of air to the scalp.
Photo source: NEIMME/Tracts/9/p.260.
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